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Dealing with The Grief of Pet Loss

Grief is an important and emotionally healthy part of processing loss. Learn more about what it means to grieve well for your pet, and access resources we’ve collected to help support you.

Dr. Bethany Hsia

September 05, 2023

What is Grief?

Grief is a personal response to life changing losses that we experience throughout life—and that includes the loss of our pets. Grief is not a sign of weakness or self-indulgence, though some have mistaken it as such. Grief is natural, healthy, and a necessary part of healing.

Reasons people disqualify or dismiss their grief

Grieving the passing of pets presents unique challenges that manifest differently for everyone. No one should ever feel guilty or ashamed about grieving for an animal friend, and yet so many pet parents do. This can be due to one or many of the following reasons.

Disqualifying our grief by comparing it to others

You might have thoughts that resemble situations like, “How can I grieve the passing of my pet when my friend’s child was just diagnosed with terminal cancer?” or "How can I grieve the passing of my pet when people loose family members in wars all over the world." Please remember that the magnitude of someone else’s loss does not make your loss small or insignificant—there is no reason to compare them.

Dismissing our grief as ingratitude

Some say, “I have been blessed in so many ways, I should be thankful and not make a big deal about this.” Gratitude is a wonderful and powerful trait, but it does not eradicate pain and loss. Gratitude and grief should never be seen as mutually exclusive.

Others treating our pet’s passing as “a disenfranchised loss”

This happens when a significant number of people don’t perceive pet loss as important, making it uncomfortable for us to grieve our pets openly. Sharing losses with others is an important part of grieving and helps us to heal. Share your grief with those you trust - such as other pet parents who have experienced what you are going through, whether they are personal friends or people you meet at a Pet Loss Support Group.

Remember that you are entitled to grieve

For many of us, a pet is not “just a dog” or “just a cat,” but rather a beloved member of our family, bringing companionship, fun, and joy to our lives. A pet can add structure to your day, keep you active and social, help you to overcome setbacks and challenges in life, and even provide a sense of meaning or purpose. So when a cherished pet passes, it’s normal to feel racked by grief and loss.

The level of grief you experience can also be compounded by certain situations and circumstances. Here are a few example.

  • If your pet was a working dog, service animal, or therapy animal, you’ll not only be grieving the loss of a companion but also the loss of a coworker, the loss of your dependence on them, or the loss of emotional support.
  • If you live alone and the pet was your only companion, you might be experience overwhelming waves of loneliness.
  • If you were unable to afford expensive veterinary treatment to prolong your pet’s life, you may feel a profound sense of guilt.

The hurt you’re feeling is because the relationship with your pet mattered. It's important not let yourself (or anyone else) make you feel that you are not entitled to grieve the loss of your pet. Instead, avail yourself of resources like coping with pet loss. May people understand what you’re experiencing and want to help.

What to expect when grieving your pet

No one can tell you exactly what to expect, but we do know that:

  • Grief can create wide spectrum of symptoms, and some may take you by surprise. For example, you may not feel quite “like yourself” in terms of your appetite, your sleep habits or your mood.
  • Grief may express itself physically as well as emotionally and mentally. It’s a good idea to ask your doctor to assess if your symptoms have an underlying cause that can or should be treated.
  • Sometimes grief requires the support and help of a mental health professional or grief counselor. Don’t hesitate to reach out.
  • Everyone grieves differently, and there is no timeline for grief.
  • Don’t put unnecessary or unrealistic expectations on yourself based on how you see other people respond to loss. Likewise, don’t worry about conforming to anyone else’s expectations about your grief.
  • Pet loss can trigger all sorts of seemingly unrelated memories and accompanying emotions. Don’t be surprised if the illness or passing of your pet brings deep sadness over other major losses in your past; one grief tends to spark another.

Anticipatory Grief

It’s hard to prepare for a sudden loss, but in many cases, it becomes apparent that a beloved pet's days are numbered long before the event takes place. For many, this is the start of the grieving process. We’ve found articles like this one can help pet parents prepare for the inevitable loss.

Understanding the two kinds of loss

There are two types of loss: primary and secondary

  • Primary loss relates, not only directly to your pet’s death, but to events prior to death such as medical diagnosis, change in behavior, and diminished quality of life.
  • Secondary losses occur as a result of primary losses. These might include, but are not limited to, not being able to walk your dog, giving away your pet’s things, and/or changes in your daily routine.

Both types of losses are bound to impact you, whether or not you are aware of them. However, awareness empowers you to respond appropriately by grieving for them in your own way.

Children and pet loss

Children’s emotional attachments to pets can be just as strong as an adult’s. The death of a pet is often the first devastating loss that a child faces, and an opportunity for parents to help them see grief as normal and not to be avoided or made light of. Rituals to memorialize a beloved pet can be very helpful as they provide a structure and a safe space for children as well as adults to express their thoughts and feelings. When children are invited to participate memorializing a beloved pet, it can provide a much-needed sense of closure.

Learn more about children and pet loss including:

  • Age-related developmental stages and how they affect children’s responses to the death of a pet.
  • How children can be involved in memorializing their pets.
  • Questions that children may ask about the death of a pet

We also recommend this article, by UC Davis Grief Counseling, with its helpful list of Do’ and Don’ts when helping children understand pet loss

Helping your surviving pet deal with loss

Grief is a natural response for people who have suffered the loss of a loved one, but what about our pets? Many pets do grieve the illness and passing of another pet in the household, and like us, their grief is unique and can be expressed in a wide variety of ways.

It is not unusual to notice a change in a pet’s interaction with a terminally ill pet long before they pass. When other pets are present at an in-home euthanasia, they might sniff the deceased pet at length, or they might do the opposite: seem indifferent and leave the room. Pets may show ‘traditional’ grief-like symptoms after their furry friend has passed (decreased appetite, depression and constant searching for their buddy).

Self-Care

Early on, we emphasized the importance of expressing your grief to others. This part of grief is known as mourning. Mourning is part of the healing process and should therefore be included in self-care. Conversations are a good way to express your grief, but as mentioned, rituals are also helpful. We recommend that that you find a way to memorialize your pet whether or not there are children in the household. It doesn’t need to be elaborate. It just needs to be something that is meaningful to you and to others who may participate.

Self-care, both physical and emotional, will be more important than ever but you may find it challenging to do. Don’t allow guilt and/or shame to trick you into thinking you don’t deserve to be taken care of during this difficult time.

Several of the valuable resources listed below relate to self-care. We hope they help you find comfort and support through this journey.

Hotlines and support groups for handling grief after the loss of a pet

Websites

  • The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (APLB) - is a nonprofit association of concerned volunteers who are knowledgeable about the tender subject of pet death and dedicated to helping people during this very special kind of bereavement. The website contains an extensive list of resources related to pet loss. 
  • There are numerous resources for those suffering from grief and/or depression over the loss or anticipated loss of a beloved pet. Resources include safe and non-judgmental support groups, pet loss counseling and live person-staffed phone hotlines. Please click here for a list of ready resources around the country.
  • Grief Resources offered by the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine include counseling for Seniors, recognizing symptoms, self-care tips and mental health counseling.

Phonelines

For more information please see UC Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine’ Client Support Counseling Services page or alternatively schedule a grief consultation at 530-752-7341.

If you are really struggling to cope with the loss of your pet, please reach out to one of these resources. Although your grief is unique to you, you do not have to suffer through it alone. Additional pet loss resources can be found here.

About

Dr. Bethany graduated from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in 2010. After graduation, she moved west. Dr. Bethany spent a year at a small animal exclusive practice in Washington state, where she was first introduced to in-home euthanasia. She gravitated towards helping pet parents and their pets in their last moments when it seemed other doctors did not find an interest. Growing up, Bethany had many childhood pets and occasionally tended to injured wildlife. The ability to calm and comfort animals seemed to come naturally to her. Dr. Bethany believes a peaceful passing is the last gift we give our pets and that it’s a gift best given at home. In her spare time, Dr. Bethany enjoys reading and running, although her favorite time is spent together with her husband and their young children. Read More